Interview with photographer Taco Anema
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Taco Anema started his career as a photographer 30 years ago, working for
newspapers and magazines in his home country the Netherlands. Since then, he has focused more and more on documentary work and has traveled
around the world, working on projects that engage with people's daily lives, as well as adapted stories and realities. He is self-taught without any formal photography or art education.
Taco's work is shown in many galleries and museums in the Netherlands and abroad, and his work has been published in
several books publications. Following several years photographing children and water around the world for a project sponsored by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), Taco's book Tales of Water, A Child’s View/Cuentos del agua: Una visión de un niño was published in 2006. Filled with stunning photographs accompanied by thought-provoking text, it is a very special book.
Taco lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
What inspired you to do your Tales of Water project – in particular, to focus on children alongside the water?
Tales of Water was first and foremost a documentary project aimed at the general public intended to raise awareness of the condition of fresh water on the planet. I wanted it to be an optimistic and easily accessible report because - under normal circumstances - people will take care of what they love and can understand.
I chose children as the main subject for several reasons. Firstly, they are the future generation and decision makers. The sooner they become aware of the fact that their lives are connected to that of other children around the globe, the better. A second reason was that the stories children tell us are unprejudiced and authentic. It’s impossible to not believe a child. And the final reason was that I wanted to reach the parents through their own children.
Here is part of my initial proposal for the project:
Water is often considered with a negative connotation (floods, tsunamis, draught, pollution). Although there are many water-related problems worldwide, water remains a positive factor in many people's lives as well; people all over the world depend on water for different reasons (e.g. drinking water, food, work, entertainment). By viewing actual water issues through the eyes of children from different regions of the world this project shows an untainted view of water as a positive element, while at the same time recognizing the pressing issues.
Nothing is harder than to bring to attention something ordinary. At the same time, nothing is as radical as something ordinary not being there anymore one day. However, scaring people with dark prophecies does not convince them, does not put them to action, but in turn causes a passive resignation. To put the water problem on the agenda and to keep it there, we wish to keep away from abstract, moralistic, or political warnings for the future. To show what water means to a person, a group or a community, we just show it. That simple.
All over the world and from different cultural backgrounds, children tell about their bond with water. This project records their experiences, feelings, ways of seeing and fantasies on the subject of water in daily life. Not to point out that there are problems with water but to show that children in their own lifetimes have their own ways of dealing with water issues. Moreover, to show that water has a function, is a product, and above all, is a vital condition for life.
To let dry statistics come to life, we invite children from different countries to tell us about their own experiences with water: at home with their families, in schools and where they gather and play.
Can you tell us a bit about the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), who published your book, and your involvement with them?
I have to admit I had not heard of the IUCN until a friend of mine who had done some work for them as a photographer, mentioned the possibility of collaboration. I gave them a call and the next day I found myself on a plane to Geneva, Switzerland, where they’re based.
IUCN runs many projects on actual water management all over the world and is very keen on publishing about them in order to raise funds. We agreed that I would visit a total of 16 locations that were of special interest to them, and that fitted in with the context of my plan. The book was a gift to all the visitors to the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico in 2006. During the opening ceremony a copy of the book was presented to the President of Mexico by a group of children I had photographed in Mexico.
How did you go about choosing which countries to focus on?
Actually, it did not matter to me that much where I went as long as there was at least one location on each continent. The projects that are described are selected because they were well known projects to the IUCN.
The book is divided into five continental sections. Although you focused specifically on between one and four countries per continent, the written introduction to each section gives a real feel for the enormity and diversity of each land mass. They also highlight unfairness in how water is exploited and/or shared. When you visited the different communities in the different countries, were these issues you discussed or were you simply an outside observer?
In order to make the message as strong as possible, I focussed 100% on the children and their authentic stories. What do they know, think; what’s important to them? I wanted to record their own ideas and fantasies just before they got to an age where all of a sudden they become a member of their culture and are going to speak the words of their parents and in a broader sense those of society. The introductions, though, are meant for the parents.
How did the children you met respond to the project?
They loved it as much as I did. They were stunned that some weird grown-ups from far away had come to listen to what they had to tell. They woke us (the interpreter and me) each morning and we worked with them until evening and bedtime.
What special moments stand out from your travels that you can share with us?
I still think back very often to the moments that I was among total strangers in tiny little villages in the middle of nowhere, welcomed by every single one of them and staying in their homes for sometimes over a week. Trust was never an issue, it was just always there. I was always very sad when the time came to leave.
And did anything go wrong?
No, nothing, ever. Again, I was truly very lucky.
I know it’s probably a hard question to answer, but what is/are you favourite photograph/s?
All my favourites were made in Africa and S.E Asia, no exception. Possibly because I know Europe pretty well; and South America too looked fairly familiar, maybe because of the heavy Spanish and Portuguese influences. Africa and Asia were nothing like I had ever seen before.
In the book, as well as quotations from children about water, there are some poems typed over some of the photos. Can you tell us about them?
A little while ago, I read somewhere that an emotion hits the brain a thousand times faster than a word or a line of text. Photography is nothing but emotion, but regularly I find it hard to relate to the people in the picture. Sometimes it’s just not enough to know what they look like and to understand the situation they are in. I would still very much like to know something personal about them. And this is typically where the text comes in.
As mentioned earlier, we were very keen on recording the language children use to put their ideas, feelings and thoughts into words. That reinforces the message. So we talked extensively with them about their own experiences in their daily lives. Nobody had at that point thought of poems and the like.
Many people, teachers, parents, mayors and so on, attended our conversations and most likely – I can’t remember exactly – one of them suggested adding a poem by a well known poet or the lyrics of a local song. A really great idea. So we did. Together with the children we picked the ones they liked the best. The poems were important to the children. They suggested putting them in the book. So we did.
Did the book differ in any way from how you envisaged it at the start of the project?
Yes, it did. I did a pilot in Romania to see if the original concept was worthwhile. I focussed very much on a couple of children and documented specifically their stories, and made their portraits using a large-format camera.
When I got in contact with the IUCN and they offered to sponsor the project, we changed the approach slightly to fit in more with their wishes, which obviously involved a greater accent on pictures.
Would you agree that Tales of Water is not necessarily directed at children but is certainly a wonderful resource for young people both to learn about water worldwide, and to share in the joy and exuberance children all over the world find in water?
When you want to talk to the future generation and among them the future decision makers, talk to their parents. It’s the parents that show the book to their children and tell them about what there is to be seen in the pictures. And of course children ask all kinds of questions that need to be answered. So parents and children talk to each other and get excited about the beauty and richness of the world and the lives of many other children far away.
I think it works both ways, parents and their children inspire each other to reflect - each in their own special way - on what they’ve just seen and talked about. At that point in which they care, there is the beginning of change.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading the book?
That if mankind continues to think that economic growth as such is vital to get them what they want, they are going to lose a whole lot more.
How has this global-scale project affected your photography since its completion?
For over a decade I hardly slept in my own bed, being on the road most of the time. So I decided to work on a project in the Netherlands for a while, in my own back yard, so to speak. I created a series of photographs of families in their homes on lazy Sunday afternoons. It was called A Hundred Dutch Households. It was set up as a purely photographic project in which I would only work on visual aspects of the group portrait genre. But something strange happened and I only realized what it was after it became rather a success. Without realising it, I had unintentionally hit upon the Dutch identity.
It’s somewhat odd that my first harbour tour – at the age of 11 – was in Marseilles, France, 1000 miles from where I lived at that time, while the biggest port on the planet is Rotterdam in the Netherlands and 50 miles from our home, and yet I only visited it at the age of 32.
In other words, it seems only natural to first have a look beyond those green hills, to discover and explore the world, only to look around on your return with new eyes and hopefully see your own culture more objectively, and the value that’s to be found there.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Since focusing on A Hundred Dutch Households, Dutch identity has been my subject. The Netherlands has per capita by far the most non-profit organisations in the world and I’m making portraits, again group portraits, of their boards. All kinds of people are involved from all over the country: old, new, traditional, progressive, immigrants, expats etc. It is a true window on our rapidly changing society, in Europe at the beginning of the 21st century.
* Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor
Posted March 2011
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